I found the group in the Edible Garden after an awkward and brisk gander (late) through the wrong gate of Thornton Heath Recreation Ground. With hindsight, I should have looked more emphatically for those dark, camera-esque growths generally cinched to the individuals in a photography group; my own was tucked away in a canvas bag, and therefore my mating call to our mutual interest was not immediately obvious.
The camera club, self-described as a ‘connector for models, make-up artists and photographers of all levels,’ was Lenses of Croydon, and the event was Sunday 19th July’s Photography Walkabout, part of 2015′s Thornton Heath Arts Week. It was a mellow and immersive affair – suitable for a slightly grey Sunday – that successfully melded the regular meetups of the Lenses with a guided, quasi-historical tour of the local rec to pique the interests of attendees in the park’s increasing community promise.
The group kindly took the time to each introduce themselves to this (late) newcomer, and – as quickly became apparent – this inclusive and warm community spirit was theme of both the afternoon and the organisations involved. Paul Macey, a member of Friends of Thornton Heath Rec to top off a formidable civic resumé that includes Croydon Radio and Croydon Voluntary Action, played his part as guide. We photographers shared the thirteen and a half acre plot of land in which we had planted ourselves to photograph the foliage, with goal posts and a basketball court, a gated playpark and a bowling green, as well as an outdoor gym in neon green nick.
My mother was particularly enamoured of the Edible Garden which bloomed attractively with the likes of nasturtiums and lavender and a thriving herb plot. Potatoes were busy ballooning underground but, as Paul informed us, less so the pea shoots; school children treat the nascent green pods as after-school snacks. What initiative. A small collection of shallow beds – interestingly, cultivated over an old World War II bomb shelter – were filled with big promise and plans for expansion: think a young but budding Coombe Woods ornamental garden. The bees and the butterflies certainly appreciated.
This informative approach to the photography walkabout took place, obviously, amidst avid picture-taking. Alongside my entry-level DSLR (and my mother’s mobile phone) were a number of cameras at varying levels of price and professionalism. The warm sense of comradeship within the group was genuinely a little surprising. The more experienced members offered gentle aid and prompting to the lesser experienced with regards to technicalities, content and composition. Lenses of Croydon’s website itself currently boasts over 250 members, and an age range of more than sixty years. True to its manifesto, a number of members have used the ‘connector’ as a springboard to collaborate with like-minded participants outside of club hours, according to more niche photographic interests.
The linchpin of all this, quite obviously when you meet him, is freelance photographer Lee Townsend. A soft-spoken man, he is is the organiser of Lenses of Croydon, and brings to it his passion for photography and community along with a clear vision of where it is going. The emphasis of the club is therefore very much on accessibility for its members. In particular, courses and events are kept low-cost, with a view to including those who otherwise may find it difficult to access the teaching and equipment needed to excel in the field. Priorities, Lee tells me, are always on creating meet-ups that are informative, fun and welcoming – rather than spending a huge amount on booking a talk that will need a large entrance fee to cover its own cost, for example.
That being said, the next event for Lenses of Croydon is indeed a high-profile photographer, scheduled for the next meetup on Thursday 6th August, and of course with a low entry fee. Lee hopes to make this a monthly occurrence in the future, and also ultimately wants members to have access to club-owned equipment and a dark room at minimal financial cost. This is still very much in the pipeline, but in the face of Croydon College’s closure of its photography department, a practical and perhaps necessary aim for the club.
These plans are a lot to take on for someone with the schedule of a freelance photographer. I ask Lee if it ever gets the better of him. He grins, camera perched comfortably in the crook of his arm: “This is my home. This is my town. Anything I can do for Croydon, I’ll do”.
Take note, kids. An edifying experience for a chilled Sunday; I took home a couple of new camera skills and more than a couple of new comrades and potential collaborators.